Satchmo at the Waldorf
Teachout's biography of Armstrong was published a few years ago and the playwright surely draws (in part) upon his research for the book. Teachout was a jazz musician and jazz writer, too. This live stage rendering is wonderfully unique. Credit (here and again) to Thompson. The script begins when Armstrong, who would pass away several months later at the age of 70, has performed his first set at the Waldorf-Astoria and returns to his dressing area a fatigued, unhealthy man. He immediately feeds himself some oxygen before addressing the audience. Then he talks of the past and present.
This one-act play is laced with profane language, even though many, during Armstrong's later years, associated him with appearances, for example, on "The Ed Sullivan Show." He was known for his solo version of "Hello Dolly," for his gravel-voice, his optimistic demeanor. The current audience meets a man who never quite adored that tune but realized he could play trumpet with the best of musicians and seeks respect; he also well understood that, at this point in his career, he was performing for white audiences.
Teachout utilizes, for contention, Armstrong's relationship with his manager, Joe Glaser. Thompson personifies both men, and his talent for instantly transforming voice and disposition is astounding. Glaser first owned a nightclub in Chicago. Ultimately, performer and the man who booked acts for him developed a love/hate lasting bond. Armstrong and Glaser, within Thompson's grasp, denounce one another but forever need that relationship.
Additionally, Teachout includes the "Uncle Tom" allegations Satchmo received from Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis. Miles was evidently one who disliked Armstrong and said so.
I have a vivid memory of watching Louis Armstrong perform sometime during the 1960s at Jones Beach on Long Island's south shore when Guy Lombardo, a nearby resident, drew upon peers to join him in performance. It is an image which persists.
Teachout's well-written play includes relatively little music. Armstrong is compiling his life story on a period-appropriate reel-to-reel tape recorder. At one point only does Thompson singand skillfully at that. Could the show benefit from a bit more music? Probably. The insight within Satchmo results from the penetrating view the author has of this complex man. Moreover, Thompson's dexterity is stunning.
While the actor is two decades younger and much thinner than was Armstrong as he played the Waldorf, he embodies the jazzman with uncanny perception. Thompson never hurries and, from his first appearance, an observer is completely takenwatching the actor sculpt himself into his characters. Playing Armstrong, Thompson is stooped and suffering, but straightened and wise-cracking as Glaser. The performer never wavers and never flags; he is consistent throughout.
The Long Wharf production recently ran at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Massachusetts, from mid-August through mid-September. It now feels complete and polished. Director Edelstein has been pivotal and Lee Savage's set is appropriately realistic for the time.
Satchmo at the Waldorf is at Long Wharf Theatre's Stage II through November 11th. For tickets, visit www.longwharf.org or call (203) 787-4282.
- Fred Sokol